The soot-smudged flag that flew atop the Capitol on 9/11 was destroyed Friday in a fire at the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pa., less than a month after it arrived in Somerset County.
Former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., donated the flag this year, on the 13th anniversary of the day the passengers rebelled against an attempted hijacking of the plane. Hastert thanked the families of the 33 passengers and seven crew members who died in the crash.
“If it wasn't for the actions of those heroes, that plane probably would have crashed into the Capitol of the United States,” Hastert said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette . “They, with their courage and their strength, took down that plane.”
Park staff were planning to put the flag, which was soiled with smoke from the Pentagon attack, on permanent display in a visitors' center that is still under construction. The site is about two miles from the scene of the fire. Some of these objects destroyed in the blaze, including the flag, were on-site to be photographed, measured and prepared for display by exhibit designers for inclusion in the new visitors' center.
National Park Service officials and Pennsylvania State Police are trying to determine the cause of the blaze, which destroyed the memorial headquarters complex, according to NPS spokesman Mike Litterst. Members of both agencies worked throughout the night to secure the scene and begin the investigation, Litterst said in a statement.
One employee, who is also a member of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department, suffered minor first-degree burns as he attempted to put out the blaze with fire extinguishers.
Other losses include a handful of personal items of the Flight 93 passengers and crew. The items were either recovered from the crash site or provided by family members to represent their loved ones. Also burned were approximately 100 tribute items that have been left by visitors since 2001. But the vast majority of the 60,000 tribute items continue to be stored offsite and were unaffected by the fire.
The vast majority of the 820 oral histories conducted since 2005 that provide first-person insight into the crash, its investigation and the establishment of Flight 93 National Memorial, survived the fire. The memorial’s archival photo collection, plus 480 DVDs containing tens of thousands of images of the crash scene, investigation, temporary memorials and construction of the permanent memorial also were unharmed.
The FBI believes the four terrorists who hijacked the San Francisco-bound plane were intent on crashing it into the Capitol. Passengers who had heard about the World Trade Center attacks earlier that morning helped fight for control of the plane in a struggle that led to its crash.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.